R Kelly is a “predator” whose fame brought him “access to girls, boys and young women”, his sex abuse trial has been told on the opening day of the hearing.
The trial, which is set to last for about a month, is expected to include testimony from some female accusers and at least one male accuser, with some allegations going back 20 years.
Kelly, a three-time Grammy winner whose hits include I Believe I Can Fly, Bump ‘N’ Grind and Ignition, has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, sexual abuse and bribery, and strongly denied any wrongdoing.
In her opening statement, Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the jury in New York that the R&B singer used his fame to entice his alleged victims and “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically”.
The 54-year-old would often record sex acts with minors and controlled a racketeering enterprise of people who were eager to “fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands”, she said, adding that “what his success and popularity brought him was access – access to girls, boys and young women”.
“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Ms Melendez told the court in Brooklyn, as she explained the evidence to be revealed during the singer’s federal trial. “This case is about a predator.”
She described the singer as “a man who used lies, manipulation, threats and physical abuse to dominate his victims and to avoid accountability for years”.
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The trial is under way following several delays, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an anonymous jury of seven men and five women sworn in to hear proceedings.
Following Ms Melendez’s speech, one of Kelly’s legal team was expected to deliver an opening statement on his behalf. In previous court papers, his lawyers have characterised his accusers as “disgruntled groupies” who wanted to be with him, only to change their stories later down the line.
The singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is accused of requiring his alleged victims to demonstrate “absolute commitment” and obey strict rules, including that they eat or go to the bathroom only with his permission, not look at other men, and call him “Daddy”.
Nine charges describe Kelly’s alleged mistreatment of five alleged victims, identified only as “Jane Does” in court, three of whom were said to be underage at the time. One accuser said Kelly failed to tell her that he had herpes when he had unprotected sex with her.
The singer’s 1994 marriage to Aaliyah is also expected to come up during the trial. Prosecutors are aiming to show he bribed an official to obtain fake identification for the singer, who was 15 at the time – he was 27 – so that they could get married. Kelly believed he had got Aaliyah pregnant, and hoped a marriage would keep her from having to testify against him, prosecutors will argue.
Aaliyah, identified as Jane Doe #1 in the indictment, died in a plane crash in 2001.
Kelly’s trial in New York comes after years of suspicions and accusations against him. In 2008, he went on trial in Illinois facing child pornography charges, but was acquitted.
Many of the allegations against him were featured in the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R Kelly, which aired early in 2019. The first of the latest charges against him were made shortly afterwards.
Kelly could face years in prison if he is found guilty. But the New York case is only part of the legal issues the singer is facing, with sex abuse charges brought in Illinois and Minnesota, too – to which he has also pleaded not guilty.
Women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred was among those seen entering the court before the start of the hearing on Wednesday. “All I can say is that I’m very confident that the court will afford a fair trial both to Mr Kelly and also to the persons who allege that they are victims,” she told reporters.
Nicole Becker and Thomas Farinella, two of Kelly’s defence lawyers, also spoke outside court.
“We’ve been preparing and ready to go,” said Mr Farinella. “Excited for Mr Kelly to have his day in court.”
“He’s going to have his day in court and justice will be served,” said Ms Becker.